Little Known Congo Stories

Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn

Hollywood heard the siren song of the idealized mystery of the Belgian Congo, and used the city of Stanleyville (now Kisangani) as a backdrop for a couple major films.  Most notably, in 1951, the famous director John Huston filmed The African Queen in this region, starring Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart, for which Bogart won his lone Academy Award.  In his acceptance speech, Bogart quipped, “It’s a long way from the Belgian Congo to the stage of this theater.  It’s nicer to be here.  Thank you very much.” Along with Bogart’s wife Lauren Bacall, they all stayed at the fancy Hotel Pourquoi Pas? in Stanleyville, right on the banks of the Congo River.

Bogart and Huston were apparently the only members of the cast and crew who didn’t get dysentery.  Bogart revealed the reason, “All we ate was baked beans and canned asparagus and drank scotch whiskey. Whenever a fly bit me or Huston it dropped dead.” Because Hepburn was so disgusted by how much alcohol Huston and Bogart were consuming, she drank only water, and got very ill as a result.  She never missed a day of filming, however.[1]

Based on the positive experience, another film, The Nun’s Story starring Audrey Hepburn, was shot there a few years later.


Che Guevara 

Che Guevara was attracted to Congo’s anti-imperial struggles, fueled by his own Cuban anti-western motivations.  He explained his motivation: “Our view was that the Congo problem was a world problem.”[2]  Che came to the shores of Lake Tanganyika in 1965, flown from Cuba to help 26-year old Laurent Kabila (who became president 32 years later) and the Simbas in their rebellion based in South Kivu, eastern Congo.  The offensive led nominally by Kabila collapsed in 1965.  Che left after seven months, malnourished and discouraged,[3] saying he felt more alone than he ever had.[4]


Rumble in the Jungle (Ali-Foreman)

At 4 am local time on October 30, 1974, one of the greatest boxing matches — if not sporting events — in history was held in the capital of Congo (then Zaire).  The undefeated heavyweight champion at the time, George Foreman, fought Muhammad Ali in front of 60,000 fans and watched by a world-wide television audience.  Though the younger Foreman was heavily favored in the fight dubbed the “Rumble in the Jungle,” Ali utilized unorthodox tactics to bewilder and exhaust Foreman, finally knocking him out.

The fight was one of famous boxing promoter Don King’s first events.  He didn’t have the money he promised the fighters and musical acts, so had to look for someone to fund the event.  In stepped Mobutu Sese Seko, who saw a major opportunity for publicity and acclaim.  In addition to the fight, a huge concert was also held, featuring James Brown, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, Manu Dibango, the Fania All-Stars, Bill Withers, and others.

During the training period in Congo, Ali became a beloved figure to the Congolese.  Everywhere he went, he heard chants of “Ali, boma ye!” which means “Ali, kill him!”[5]

This was perhaps the high point of Mobutu’s rule. It represented a real accomplishment for Congo, and fanned the flames of nationalism.[6]


 Dandies in the Rough

 An entire encyclopedia could be dedicated to cultural innovations spearheaded by the Congolese people.  One of the more interesting developments is the emergence of les sapeurs.  As the New York Times explains, “The Congo is the birthplace of SAPE, a loosely organized cult of dandies known as ‘les sapeurs.’ SAPE is an abbreviation of the group’s name, which in English translates as the Society of Ambience and Elegant People.  The contrast between the extravagance of their attire and the hardships of their lives has the effect of highlighting the dignity of their code.  Indeed, dressing well is part of the culture there.”[7]


[2] Stearns, p. 84.

[3] Stearns, p. 84.

[4] Van Reybrouck, p. 328.

[5] “What they said about Muhammad Ali”BBC Sport. 1/17/2012.

[6] Van Reybrouck, p. 354.

[7] Shayla Harris and Joanna Nikas, “In Goma, Lights May Flicker but Looks Stay Sharp,” New York Times, June 16, 2017